Justin Peligri: Stop scorning my college degree

Media Credit: Cartoon by Brandon Lee

In less than a month, I’ll join the 40 percent of Americans who have earned at least a two-year college degree.

But that statistic – just two in every five Americans – means there are more of us without a college diploma than with one.

There’s nothing wrong with not going to college: Millions of people from across the country will choose alternate ways to spend their time between the ages of 18 and 22, and many won’t be privileged enough to even have that choice. I can perfectly understand why someone would not to go to college – even if it wasn’t the route I personally took.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

There is, however, something very wrong when a neutral fact of life – that some people attend college – is belittled in the form of a political talking point, which I’ve seen echoed across cable news recently.

“That’s the kind of elitist, government-knows-best, top-down approach we’ve had for years,” potential presidential candidate and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said in a recent Fox News interview. He was responding to those who have pointed out that he dropped out of college 34 credits short of a diploma.

“I’d rather have a fighter who’s proven he can take on the big government interests and win,” he said.

Why does Walker think you can’t be a “fighter” while also having a college degree? When did political acumen and book smarts become mutually exclusive?

I’ve seen practically every role model of mine, politically or otherwise, speak on campus. When Hillary Clinton and Anderson Cooper came, I sat in the front row for both. GW offers students the opportunity to learn about the world from the people who have helped shape it, and I look up to these people. That’s why it’s discouraging to hear political figures disparage my education and its value.

As graduation approaches, I find myself wondering whether these four years have been worth it – without the help of politicians calling that into question for me, too.

In the end, I’ve realized academia’s inherent value: College has gifted me with a chance to find out what I love and hate about learning. It has given me the opportunity to do some intellectual soul-searching so the career I eventually end up in is one that I am passionate about, as opposed to one that I fell into without purpose or strategy.

As a proud future diploma-toter, I find anti-intellectualist comments problematic because they send the wrong message to college graduates. It seems to implicitly say that being attuned and informed isn’t important. For what it’s worth, this isn’t a voting bloc that should be ignored: Nearly 23 million people between the ages of 18 and 29 cast a ballot in 2012, making up about 19 percent of the electorate.

There’s a difference between sharing your views about the size of government and conflating political philosophy with shaming academia. It’s clear that Walker was doing the latter. It’s going to be a long 18 months until the 2016 election if that is the kind of superficial rhetoric presidential candidates intend to spout.

Again, I’m not here to criticize those who don’t go to college. After all, attending college is not a part of every person’s upbringing. Sixty-two percent of people with degree-holding parents say college is essential, but only 46 percent of people with non-degree-holding parents say the same, according to a 2014 College Board survey.

People with college degrees boast salaries $17,500 larger on average than their peers with only high school diplomas – but the cost of college is so exorbitant that many are justifiably scared away by the idea of paying off student loans throughout their adulthood.

Even today, not all professions demand a college degree. But that doesn’t mean there’s harm in the professions that do, or the people who choose to pursue them. And as a college student, I can’t cast a vote for a candidate who thinks there is.

Walker isn’t the only candidate unfairly critical of the value in academia and learning. A staggering number of candidates – Jeb Bush and Chris Christie among them – have voiced some iteration of the phrase “I don’t read The New York Times.”

People who can’t afford the Times’ monthly subscription fee have an excuse. But newsflash: If you’re a major candidate running for a major election, you ought to read what a major newspaper has to say about you and your competitors.

Sure, there’s a potentially valid argument about the left-of-center persuasion of the paper’s editorial board. But it’s also one of the foremost news sources in this country and is frequently cited in academic journals. It’s what I, as an aspiring journalist, have been taught in journalism classes to appreciate as the gold standard.

And that’s why it’s mind-boggling to me when candidates flout the paper because they think it’ll score them points on Election Day. (“Anti-intellectualism is the new black,” bemoaned a fellow GW student in a recent Twitter conversation he and I were having about this topic.)

So if there’s one thing I can share with my fellow graduates, it would be this: Your degree matters – and so does being informed on current events – even if it isn’t exactly clear yet how you’ll pay off your student loans. That’s the same sort of message I’d like our politicians to spread – without, of course, going too far in the other direction and criticizing those without a degree or those who aren’t attuned to every current news story.

Deriding the value of intellectualism shouldn’t score politicians any points among the college crowd, especially as graduation nears.

Justin Peligri, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet senior columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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